The Barriers to Social Capital Measurement
In Understanding and Measuring Social Capital, Grootaert mentions the skepticism that has been voiced about measuring social capital because it “refers to an underlying social force that eludes measurement.” This “social force” argument doesn’t jive with our working definition of social capital as the resources in relationships, so we will discard it for the purposes of this discussion. However, we do think there are other arguments worth considering.
Here are a few legitimate concerns that we see with attempting to measure social capital along with illustrative examples.
The value of social capital can be subjective.
Tom extends the same industry expertise to both Bob and Joe. Bob perceives Tom’s expertise as a resource of value, while Joe thinks it is worthless. By our definition, social capital exists between Tom and Bob and between Tom and Joe, but the value of the same resource would be measured differently.
The value of social capital can be circumstantial.
Last year, Kathy heard her friend Frank talk about a unique situation he experienced at his job, but she didn’t ask a lot of questions since it wasn’t applicable to her current position. But now, Kathy has a new job in Frank’s industry and reaches out to learn from his experience. By our definition, social capital has always existed between Frank and Kathy, but it wasn’t until now that Kathy needed it.
The availability of social capital can change.
A few months ago, Mary told Sara that she had access to make an introduction to decision-makers at a vendor that her organization works with. But this month, Mary is unable to call in any favors because she is in the midst of sensitive negotiations on a contract with that vendor. By our definition, social capital existed between Mary and Sara, but at this current point in time, it is not accessible.
The availability of social capital can be subjective.
Sam needs help with a project and knows that his coworker Kim has the skills he needs. But he decides to manage it himself because he perceives that Kim has a lot on her plate right now. In reality, Kim would have been happy to help and would have enjoyed testing her skills on Sam’s project. By our definition, social capital exists between Kim and Sam, but it is not put to use because of an inaccurate perception.
In order for measurement of social capital to be accurate and useful, these substantial challenges need to be overcome.
Human Capital: An Optimistic Analogy
Human capital (resources embedded in individuals such as knowledge and skills) and social capital present similar measurement challenges, but unlike social capital, there’s a well-established framework for using proxy indicators to approximate human capital for use in research. For example, to demonstrate that human capital increases individuals’ ability to earn income, researchers have used the proxy variables of education and work experience.
We don’t have widely-accepted proxy indicators for social capital…yet. The development of these indicators might be the key to mitigating measurement challenges and facilitating important social capital insights for individuals and organizations. Luckily, Understanding and Measuring Social Capital devotes a lot of attention to discussing candidates for meaningful indicators based on the findings of the World Bank’s Social Capital Initiative. Check out The Indicators of Social Capital for a summary of these findings.
In short, although challenges continue to exist in measuring social capital, the progress made by the World Bank in developing proxy indicators provides a solid framework for beginning to address them and makes us optimistic that measurement techniques can expand to be useful in a wide variety of contexts.